Kennel Cough

We’ve recently been experiencing a little uptick in the number of canine patients with kennel cough. This is a relatively benign cough, but it’s a major nuisance for the dog and its people.

“Kennel cough” is actually a catch-all term for any infectious cough that dogs get. Many organisms are known to cause it, ranging from viruses to bacteria. The affected dog has a cough that typically sounds like something is caught in his throat, and this cough usually ends with the dog gagging.  The dog usually feels fine and has good energy levels and appetite, but just suffers from this highly annoying cough. And the owners may be kept up at night listening to this cough!

Since this is spread from one dog to another when an infected dog coughs or sneezes on a susceptible dog, kennels are ideal environments for transmission. Of course, wherever dogs meet up with each other, kennel cough can be spread. While we see cases all year round from dogs that have boarded at kennels or spent time in daycare centers, many of our recent cases have come from dogs that play in the area’s dog parks. Less frequently, dogs can pick up kennel cough at the groomer’s.

It’s not easy to prevent kennel cough. It’s just like the common cold: you can eat right, exercise, and seem like the healthiest person around…until someone coughs or sneezes on you and you get sick. There are vaccines for kennel cough, but these are not always effective. At least ten or more organisms are known to cause kennel cough, and most vaccines only contain two to three of these agents.

The vaccine is most commonly given in the nose (“intranasally”) where it creates a low-grade infection that the immune system should, in theory, respond to. It can take at least a few days if not longer for the immune system to build up adequate resistance to these few germs. The most common problem we see is that owners get this vaccine last-minute- the same day the dog is due to enter a boarding kennel- and the dog has not had time to develop immunity before being exposed. In addition, this dog, when placed in a kennel without the rest of its pack (of humans), is stressed. Stress causes release of the hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system, which can make the dog get kennel cough from the vaccine! It’s not surprising that kennels that require this vaccine still experience many cases of kennel cough.

What can you do to try to prevent or treat kennel cough? Probiotics may help. These healthy bacteria can stimulate the production of the type of antibody that guards the respiratory tract. Studies in humans have shown that people who take probiotics at the onset of the common cold get over the cold much faster than those who do not take probiotics. It’s not a bad idea to put your dog on probiotics if you are going to board her, take her to daycare, or just socialize her frequently.

Homeopathic remedies can help sometimes. When the correct remedy is given, the coughing dog may return to normal within hours to a day.

Cough suppressants help in many cases. The over-the-counter versions tend to not be as effective as the prescription ones. Drowsiness is the major side effect, but sleep is restorative! We rarely prescribe antibiotics as these may actually prolong the course of the illness. We reserve antibiotics for dogs that are not in good health or have other problems that put them at higher risk for pneumonia.

Can I still board my dog if she has kennel cough? Sorry, no. The goal of every kennel is to prevent the appearance of this nuisance illness. If you know that your dog has kennel cough, you should not board your dog or take her to daycare or parks until she has been better for at least a week. Normal otherwise-healthy dogs who contract kennel cough typically get over it in 7-10 days. New dogs in the house may take up to a month to stop coughing. You will have to rearrange your plans, enlisting friends and family or hiring a professional pet sitter.

Kennel cough is an annoyance but rarely becomes serious in the healthy dog. If your dog shows signs of kennel cough, keep him away from other dogs and give him lots of TLC to speed the recovery.